TEL AVIV, Israel — After four days of the most intense Middle East peace push in years, Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Sunday without securing a public commitment that the two sides would return to the negotiating table, though he insisted that "real progress" had been made and said that a resumption of talks "could be within reach."
In what has become a familiar refrain, Kerry promised to return to the region soon.
"We started out with very wide gaps and we have narrowed those considerably," Kerry told reporters before departing for a meeting of foreign ministers in Asia, having canceled a visit to the United Arab Emirates to continue to press his case here. "I am very hopeful that we are close to an approach that will work, but it will take a little bit more time to work through some of the details."
While American and Israeli officials involved in the talks, and to a lesser extent their Palestinian counterparts, said that this trip, Kerry's fifth in three months, had yielded real movement, skepticism was high among veteran analysts of the peace process.
If days of shuttle diplomacy and marathon meetings, including a six-hour session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that ended at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, did not yield a breakthrough, they said, what more might Kerry be able to bring to bear? And even if he succeeds in getting Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to sit down together, the hard work of resolving core issues remains — along with the deep distrust and complicated internal politics on both sides.
"This is the fifth bid by the leading diplomat of the world's superpower to persuade these two people to go into a room together, and even that he cannot achieve," said David Horovitz, an Israeli journalist who has covered the Middle East for 30 years and now runs the Times of Israel news site.
Diana Buttu, an Arab-Israeli lawyer who worked with the Palestinians in previous rounds of negotiations, said she was perplexed that Kerry sounded so upbeat, because it seemed clear that the maximum Netanyahu would offer was far short of the minimum Abbas would accept.
"I think we all know he won't be able to bridge that gap very easily," Buttu said of Kerry.
Abbas wants a freeze on the building of settlements in the West Bank, the release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners and a commitment that negotiations toward a two-state solution will begin with the pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu, who has rejected any preconditions for entering talks, has not started any new settlement projects during the months of Kerry's efforts, but has allowed developments that have already been approved to move forward.